- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — A series of events triggered by a presidential candidate accused of pursuing an Islamic agenda has plunged Turkey into a crisis and damaged its prospects of joining the European Union.

The crisis has openly pitted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the secular lobby backed by the military elite, including the chief of general staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit.

Once again, there are rumblings of a possible military coup if the army judges that the country is moving too far toward political Islam, thus endangering Turkey’s republican system.

That, say Turkish analysts, would be “the end of Turkey’s European dream.”

Hovering in the background is Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, whose presidential ambitions triggered the crisis. Mr. Gul, his adversaries say, is an Islamist whose wife and daughter wear Muslim headscarves that are banned in public buildings.

Because of an opposition boycott in parliament, the Erdogan government and its Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in a disbanded Islamic party, failed to muster the majority needed to elect Mr. Gul.

Amid accusations, acrimony and mass demonstrations in favor of the secular system, the government called early parliamentary elections to be held July 22 and submitted a bill for a presidential vote by the electorate rather than parliament. On Friday, Ahmed Sedat Sezer, the strongly secular outgoing president, vetoed the bill, saying it was incompatible with Turkey’s democratic system and could lead to instability.

The electoral-reform proposal was driven by the governing party’s popularity, due mainly to spectacular economic gains: Turkey’s economy now generates three times as much income as the average West European country. Opinion polls suggest that the July elections are likely to increase the AKP’s strength, and thus Mr. Erdogan’s power.

Turkey’s future and its role is regarded by the U.S. as crucial to the West’s defense posture in an area astride East and West, with Iraq on fire next door. So far, its political system has demonstrated that democracy and moderate Islam are not incompatible.

U.S., EU lose clout

According to James F. Hoge Jr., editor of Foreign Affairs quarterly, “At this critical juncture, the United States and Europe find their leverage on Turkey markedly diminished. Anger at America and Europe is rampant because of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Europe’s vocal reluctance to grant Turkey EU membership.”

The July parliamentary elections are unlikely to resolve the turmoil over Turkey’s identity and the qualification of the predominantly Muslim nation of 74 million to join the European club.

While intellectuals insist on the nation’s European credentials, a strong political current feels that, snubbed by Europe, Turkey should move closer to the Arab Middle East.

Further complicating the EU candidacy of the country once described as “the sick man of Europe” is the growing opposition to its membership among Europeans, underscored by the recent election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. Two years ago, France defeated in a referendum a planned European constitution, in part over fears it would pave the way to Turkey’s membership.

During his electoral campaign, Mr. Sarkozy openly challenged Turkey’s claim to be European, and instead proposed the creation of a “Mediterranean union” in which Turkey would have a leading role.

Turkey insisted that this idea could not be construed as replacing its claim to EU membership.

In its opposition to Turkey, France has been joined by Germany and Austria. A country can only be admitted to the EU by a unanimous vote of its members, now numbering 27. To one Turkish analyst, Mr. Sarkozy’s election “was the final nail in the coffin of Turkish-EU relations.”

Western diplomats do not see the situation in such dramatic terms, although according to one assessment: “Turkey’s bout with political instability has damaged its foreign policy and international standing.”

Contributing to Turkey’s isolation is its continuing denial of the massacre of Armenians 90 years ago and its rejection of calling the deaths “genocide.” Nearly every time a country mentions the massacre, Turkey threatens sanctions.

EU to resume talks

With political Islam increasingly inching forward, the EU nonetheless insists that its problems with Turkey are temporary and that negotiations on “chapters” forming the accession package will resume.

Talks about eight such chapters have been suspended because of Turkey’s refusal to open its airports and harbors to Greek Cypriot traffic, despite a protocol signed in Ankara. Refusing to recognize the Greek Cypriot government, Turkey backs the separate entity it created for the Turkish Cypriot minority on the island, defended by Turkish forces.

On the Greek side of the Cypriot barricades, satisfaction with Turkey’s difficulties is increasingly marred by concern that with Turkey outside Europe rather than in it, chances of a compromise on the divided island will evaporate.

Commented Nicosia’s English-language Cyprus Mail daily: “In 2004, Turkey was willing to give something because it still believed it could join the EU. In 2007, Turkey no longer believes in Europe, and the chances of reunification look bleak.”

Nonetheless, many Europeans have not slammed the door on Turkey. In a dramatic appeal last week, 34 intellectuals, politicians and parliamentarians from various EU countries called on governments to reaffirm the membership promises made to Turkey.

“Turkey still has much to do before it meets European standards, but by showing solidarity with Turkish democrats, the EU can now help to keep the process on track,” the appeal said.

Such is the atmosphere in which the Turkish armed forces, the self-appointed guardian of the republic installed in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, abandoned the constraints introduced by the EU application and issued a formal warning to politicians this month.

“Some circles, which having carrying out endless efforts to disturb fundamental values of the republic in Turkey, have recently escalated their efforts,” said the statement by the Turkish military.

“The Turkish armed forces are concerned about the situation. It should not be forgotten that the armed forces are a party in these arguments and absolute defender of secularism … The Turkish armed forces maintain their determination to carry out their duty stemming from laws to protect the republic.”

3 coups since 1960

This was a clear signal from the military establishment which since 1960 has carried out three coups and, in 1997, forced out of office an Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in what is described as “a soft coup.”

Mr. Erdogan, the prime minister, could do little about the military’s warning besides express indignation and insist it was “unthinkable” that the armed forces could challenge an elected government.

Since Ataturk founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the army has been the country’s pride and its most respected institution. Even today, according to historian David Hotham, “the army takes peasants from remote villages, feeds them, clothes them, teaches them to read and write.”

Politically, the army has become a sacrosanct guardian of the republican system, or, as Mehmet Ali Birand, a respected Turkish commentator, described it: “a kind of nongovernmental organization, an interest group with heavy weapons.”

At the same time, however, the army’s entrenched position has become an obstacle in Turkey’s European integration. The government thought it had limited its role by appointing a civilian to head the National Security Council, but the military’s latest warning shows that its political role continues.

“The power and status of the army is a striking feature of life in Turkey,” said Gils Merrit, director of the think tank Forum Europe. “Its relationship with the government and parliament is unthinkable in European terms.”

Ataturk was wary of religion, which he considered to be hampering progress. That is why, in efforts to push Turkey westward, he included in his reforms a ban on such external symbols as the red fez for men and the veil for women.

Recent Islamist-inspired measures such as segregated swimming pools in Istanbul and plans to restore gender segregation on city buses have given ammunition to the secular opposition. Demonstrations in favor of secular values swept all major cities when the governing party named Mr. Gul as its presidential candidate, forcing his withdrawal.

Although two main opposition parties — the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) have formed an alliance for the approaching parliamentary vote, Mr. Erdogan appears confident: His government, which many consider inclined toward Islam, has enacted more than 800 strongly secular laws to bring Turkey closer to Europe.

Thus, to many Europeans, Turkey remains a conundrum as well as a divisive factor within the EU.

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